FRESNO (CN) – A multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Fresno, California-based farming giant Fowler Packing could include more than 14,000 farmworkers after a federal judge approved several subclasses Wednesday in the employment action.
The class action is closer to trial after U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd certified seven subclasses in the lawsuit that accuses Fowler of not paying seasonal migrant workers overtime or for business and travel expenses.
Drozd also rejected Fowler’s argument that the selected class representatives lacked standing and that plaintiffs’ counsel should be removed for being aligned with a prominent farmworkers labor union.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Mario Martinez said the farmworkers were pleased with Drozd’s order and that they may ask for up to $30 million in damages if the case advances to trial.
“The evidence and the law were on the side of the workers,” Martinez said in a phone interview. “It’s a testament to the effort that the workers and both law firms put into the case.”
In a pretrial hearing, Fowler and farm labor contractor Ag Force argued that Martinez should not be involved with the case because he is also general counsel for the United Farm Workers of America.
Drozd, nominated by President Barack Obama, rejected the defendants’ conflict of interest arguments and approved Martinez and the Bush Gottlieb firm as class counsel.
Martinez called the defendants’ move a “bogus argument” but said he will continue working with their attorneys at Sagaser, Watkins & Wieland of Fresno.
“We hope that with the certification the defendants try to take a more reasonable approach and come to a resolution,” Martinez added.
Defendants’ counsel did not return email or phone calls regarding the ruling.
The farmworkers sued Fowler, one of California’s largest agricultural businesses, in the Eastern District of California in March 2015. Their 28-page amended complaint accuses the defendants of requiring employees to work off-the-clock and of not providing adequate meal and rest breaks, among other causes of action.
Martinez said that some of the class members still work for Fowler and that most are seasonal migrant workers in the Fresno area. The plaintiffs assisted with Fowler’s fruit packing operation which includes mandarin oranges and table grapes. Martinez added that while the current class estimate is around 14,000 workers, it could expand now that the court has certified the subclasses.
Fowler operates a 200,000 square-feet packing facility along with a business park and solar power farm. The third-generation family farm has also started growing a variety of hops on its properties.
The farmers are fighting cases in both federal and state courts and have accused the state of carving them out of a new farm labor law at the farm workers union’s behest.
The bill, crafted by California Gov. Jerry Brown with labor unions and agricultural businesses, forced farmers to pay back wages to employees such as fruit pickers and those paid by the mile driven. Fowler was left out of the relief plan, which it claims opened it up to employment lawsuits.